Sunday, December 03, 2006

Mush on, Herbie

Herbie Nayokpuk, the Shishmaref Cannonball, one of the premier mushers from the days before the Iditarod evolved into the high speed, highway-trail race that it is these days and it became dominated by teams with houndy dogs that tend to quit in real cold, passed away last night yesterday in Anchorage.

Herbie, an Inupiat Eskimo from Shishmaref, never won the race, finishing second his best year, but he was a top finisher for quite a number of them. Some of the dogs in Rick Swenson's winning teams were from Herbie - he also learned a lot from him by going up to Shishmaref from what I hear.

The Shishmaref Cannonball exemplified the best qualities of my favorite part of the planet, Western Alaska. It's not a part of the world where it is customary to showboat or brag about yourself or your accomplishments. But he was one tough guy, in that hard-working kind of way that many of the elders were, and still remarkably generous and open. He was famous for charging out into weather that today would probably stop the race. For him, that was just winter weather, what you deal with on the coast.

I had the good fortune to meet him years ago in Shishmaref.* He and his brother ran a store there, which is no easy task in a small, isolated village. He had retired from the race, but talking to him about it, you knew that if his body wasn't preventing him then, he'd still be behind a sled. You'd still see him at the finish line after he retired from the race, cheering the teams in. Everyone knew who he was, not just because it is a small town, but because he was respected and, I think, loved.

Rest in peace, Herbie.

*This was back before the rest of the world discovered that Shishmaref had an erosion problem. The village has known about it for, oh, say, 50 years. Nowadays, every journalist writing about global warming wants to visit Shishmaref and write about the Alaska Native village threatened by it. If the feds had just got off their butts 35 years ago and put in a proper seawall, it'd be a different situation all together. But I digress.


Alaskan Dave Down Under said...

Herbie was one of my favourite mushers from a few decades ago. I'm very glad you wrote a tribute to him, and that you got to meet him, very cool.

Yes, the iditarod has changed much and I feel it needs more "throwback" mushers who know how to handle real Alaskan weather. The yukon quest seems to be wussing out too, damn!

How's the new cabin?

CabinDweller said...

The new cabin rocks, ADDU, except the wood stove has been out of commission thus far due to the fact that the chimney is something of a fire hazard. But the chimney dude is due Friday, and soon we'll be using the stove to help out the monitor heater.

Seriously, it is so big we could have a trampoline.